Wednesday, September 3, 2014
It's a Spirit Thing
Cancer. It’s a word no one wants to hear, especially if it applies to themselves or someone they love. Breast cancer can be extraordinarily devastating, and even though it affects men, for women it is as emotionally taxing as it is physically. I had battled the cancer beast once before and won. But breast cancer was a whole different beast. Through the process, I learned another word: perseverance. After my diagnosis of cervical cancer and a subsequent hysterectomy in 2002, I knew I needed to be healthy and that life truly was too short to leave things undone. I joined a local gym and enrolled at FSU. But those years were stressful. My husband was also finishing school and our youngest daughter had been diagnosed with autism. My job took a toll, and after ten years I found myself at a new job, starting all over in an unfamiliar environment. It took every ounce of perseverance I could muster to stay dedicated to being well. I could come to expect the yearly “Tallahassee crud,” which grew worse each year. I’d put on some weight when I had to quit the gym, and not being an outdoor or sports enthusiast, I struggled to find activities I enjoyed. Luckily for me, my youngest discovered taekwondo. We enrolled her in a summer program in 2008. It was perfect—she could go barefoot, wear soft, loose clothing, and avoid clunky gear. At her first belt testing and ceremony, I was smitten with the way each person was acknowledged for their accomplishments. No first or second places, no MVP’s. Everyone was a winner because they all relied on their training, practice and commitment to move to the next rank. That fall we took our daughter to compete in a tournament in Pensacola. No matter who you were there for, you cheered for each competitor. It didn’t matter who got gold. Everyone went away with cheers, high-fives, and a medal of some sort. I was sold. So I signed up too. During my first class, I learned words I’d never heard before – choon bi, kyung nae - and I learned to stand in ways I’d never known before, like the front stance, back stance and sitting stance. Soon, I was learning and growing more confident as my training progressed. Before long, my husband joined, and I became an instructor. In April 2010, I passed the toughest test I thought I’d ever take and became a black belt. I had never thought of myself as an athlete, but here I was. I got to punch things, break things (thankfully, no bones, just boards!), and see the look on people’s faces when they would find out I was not only a black belt, but I was a grandmother. I joined the academy as their first part-time staff member and supplemented my martial arts training with Jazzercise. I was feeling healthy and confident. If I could handle a class of twenty or so 7- and 8-year olds, then workplace meetings were easy! And when the pad you have to strike with a jump-spin-side kick is about eight inches in diameter, you learn another word… focus. And then it happened. All I had worked for was threatened with two words – breast cancer. I remember the date. The diagnosis. Telling my family. Planning the time away from work. Everything. December 2010 found my body forever changed. I underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction, a year-long process for which I thought I was unprepared. Little did I know that my taekwondo training had prepared me well for such a test. It had strengthened my chest muscles to support reconstruction, had increased my tolerance to handle pain and adverse situations, and had provided me with a competitive spirit I never had before. My new confidence was no longer tied to how I looked, but by what I knew I was capable of. With the support of my family and friends, I learned the word fight, and I was fighting to win. During the healing process, each surgery required less and less time off the taekwondo floor, for which I was grateful. There were things I couldn’t do, either temporarily (like sparring) or permanently (like pushups - not that I miss those). And I learned what I could tolerate and what I couldn’t. I loved that I could customize my training to suit my needs at the time, one of my favorite things about this sport. As my surgeries ended, my endurance increased the weight came off, and I gained strength and flexibility. I also racked up a few more bars on my black belt. This October will be 4 years since my diagnosis. August 2015 will present my chance at 4th degree black belt. I’m a wife, mother, grandmother, and a taekwondo and Jazzercise instructor. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. Breast cancer can’t take those things from me. For every time I didn’t break a board; for every time I didn’t land the kick during sparring; for every time I forgot my form; for every surgery that put me out; for every time cancer tried to break me, I found a new strength to keep going and keep trying. And as much as I still hate the word cancer, these new words I’ve learned have continued to serve me well: perseverance, focus, fight. I didn’t give up, and neither should you. I have an indomitable spirit.